Nearly 2.1 million pupils in England now eligible for free school meals


Nearly 2.1 million pupils in England are now eligible for free school meals, figures show.

An additional 75,000 children became eligible for free school meals over a year, according to data published by the Department for Education (DfE).

Nearly one in four (24.6%) of pupils in England were eligible for free school meals in January this year, up from 23.8% in January 2023, the data shows.

This amounts to 2.09 million children, up from 2.02 million in January 2023.

Education sector leaders said the numbers were just “the tip of the iceberg” as some children living in poverty are missing out on free school meals.

There are sharp differences in eligibility for free school meals (FSMs) across regions of England.

The highest rate is for north-east England, where 31.2% of all state school pupils were eligible, while the lowest is south-east England at 19.7%.

Children in state schools in England can receive free meals if a parent or carer is receiving one of a number of benefits, including Universal Credit, child tax credits or income support.

All pupils who have become eligible for free school meals since April 1 2018 will remain eligible until March 2025 as part of protections introduced during the rollout of Universal Credit, which the DfE has said is a factor that is likely to have contributed to the ongoing increase.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Free school meals offer a vital safety net for families and their children, and while these figures shine a light on the numbers who are struggling right now, they are sadly just the tip of the iceberg.

“The very low income cap of £7,400 for free school meals means some children living in poverty are missing out, and it is appalling that this cap has not been increased with inflation since it was introduced six years ago.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust charity, said: “It’s appalling that there are record numbers of children eligible for free school meals, indicating rising poverty.

“Unfortunately, these figures represent just the tip of the iceberg.”

He added: “The true need for free school meals goes far beyond current eligibility criteria.”

The DfE data published on Thursday also shows that the number of pupils in state-funded special schools in England, for pupils with special educational needs, has increased by 5% in a year to nearly 157,000.

Meanwhile, 20.8% pupils at state schools in England in January 2024 were recorded as having a first language known or believed to be other than English, up from 20.2% in January 2023.

A pupil is recorded to have English as an additional language if they are exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English.

“This is not a measure of English language proficiency or a good proxy for recent immigration,” the DfE said.

The latest data also suggests that the number of pupils in independent schools in England has increased in the past year by less than 1% to 593,000.

On the latest FSM figures, Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “Schools do all they can to alleviate the problems children and young people face through poverty but this should not be happening in the first place.

“These inequalities do not start and end at the school gates.

“An incoming government must address child poverty by immediately scrapping the two-child limit and ensuring every child has a free school meal.”

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The increase in the number of pupils eligible for free school meals reflects the very difficult financial situations that many families are facing.

“What’s even more concerning is we know that there are hundreds of thousands of children who are living in poverty but are not currently eligible, as well as significant numbers of pupils who are eligible but are not currently making use of the scheme.”